There's a New Buzz on Campus

A leading chemical company spurs academic research on traditional topics.

By Mark Rosenzweig, editor in chief

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Many professors at engineering schools particularly value conducting research — often vastly more, I'm afraid, than teaching. Of course, that's nothing new. For decades, faculty generally has favored the laboratory over the classroom. And there's no mystery as to why. Research can pose interesting challenges and significant rewards, including worldwide recognition and, thus, increased stature.

Too much emphasis on trendy topics does a disservice to industry.

However, securing sufficient research funding can be tough. So, professors are forced into a seemingly never-ending quest for grants. Emerging areas of technology and "hot" topics — which today include "bio" and "nano" — often capture the imagination of those controlling the purse strings. Not surprisingly, many researchers focus on these.

Topics generating the most buzz, while certainly deserving significant research efforts, receive disproportionate funding and attention at the expense of traditional areas. And that's just not my opinion. Here's what the Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich., says:

"In the last two decades, there has been a shift in the U.S. academia from a focus on traditional skills of chemistry, materials science and chemical engineering toward bio-related areas. This shift can be primarily attributed to the greater availability of funding from both government and the private sector.

"The net impact is less research is being done in the fields that are less trendy, but key to the development of the industry as a whole, like catalysis, polymers, materials science and separations."

Dow, for one, is doing something about this imbalance. In October it announced a ten-year program aimed specifically at strengthening research in traditional scientific fields. The company is committing $25 million per year, to be split among 11 U.S. universities, with the goal of re-energizing U.S. manufacturing and competitiveness.

"We are pleased to partner with academia to ensure that a vital pipeline of talent and research is available to fuel the discoveries and solutions of tomorrow," says Andrew N. Liveris, Dow's chairman and CEO.

"As a major employer of scientific and engineering talent, Dow is committed to the development of the 21st century workforce, which will work to solve society's most pressing challenges, while cultivating a more competitive U.S. marketplace. Excellence in scientific education and the development of innovative solutions go hand-in-hand," he adds.

 "This unique and industry-leading investment will support breakthrough technologies and increase collaboration between Dow and leading universities, while helping to develop America's future pipeline of Ph.D.-level talent," notes William F. Banholzer, the company's chief technology officer and executive vice president of ventures, new business development and licensing. "It is vital that we support academic research to ensure universities can continue the tradition of excellence in chemical engineering, chemistry and materials science to help address the needs of the industry and our country."

"Dow must invest in world-leading faculty, directly supporting multi-year research fellowship commitments to the nation's top talent to conduct research in areas of greatest importance to our company, our industry and our country," adds Theresa Kotanchek, vice president, sustainable technologies and innovation sourcing.

Dow chose the schools based on their excellence in science and engineering education and research, as well as their willingness to collaborate with industry. The 11 schools are: the California Institute of Technology, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign, Georgia Institute of Technology, the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Wisconsin, Northwestern University, the University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Michigan.

Each partnership has been designed to leverage the particular university's unique strengths, says Dow. Its investment will support faculty, students and infrastructure, enabling a critical mass of resources to address some of the world's leading challenges, adds the company.

Dow will fund research in areas including catalysis, polymers, materials science, separations, mass transport, electrochemistry and new materials for applications in several areas.

This new program complements a long-standing commitment to enhancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at all levels, encouraging students to pursue careers in science and promoting teacher development, Dow says.

It's another case of Dow setting an example that other chemical companies should emulate, like it has for safety (see "Make Safety Second Nature").


MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net

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